by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
In order for us to understand exactly how 2021 LSU could be a success on the ground, we must first go back to go forward, venturing simultaneously through the past, present and future:
What does 2019 & 2020 LSU have to do with this upcoming season?
2019 = How it's done.
2020 = How bad it can get.
Now... stay with me.
2020's success hinged on James Cregg developing 2nd stringers or 2019 freshmen into powerhouse O-linemen...
Additionally, 2020 success depended on the evolution of our highly prized sophomore backs almost as much as it rested on chosen starter QB Myles Brennan taking the next step...and when our lack of a rushing attack was exposed or Myles Brennan went down after 3 weeks due to poor OL play, we inevitably lost games....
It all connects...one problem on the O-line, one mistake in running back rotation, one error by the quarterback when setting up protections, it can all create a myriad of issues in the backfield....and pretty soon, everyone's off.
Simply put, if LSU want to win another championship, let alone compete for the SEC, they must figure out their unsettled backfield by July....or we're in trouble.
Heading into 2021, RBs Coach Kevin Faulk is now working alongside OC Jake Peetz & OL James Cregg to fix this glaring issue.
Soon after Peetz's hire, constant injuries and uncertainty reared their ugly heads throughout the running back room's tumultuous Spring, bringing up a bevy of difficult questions.... while on the other hand, offering far more potential answers.
However, when looking at the recent past, we can begin to paint a picture of what may be on the horizon:
2020's running backs room contained a highly talented group (coached under first-time RBs Coach Kevin Faulk) but due to a combination of porous offensive line play, bad play-calling, as well as injuries & a horrific rotation, our rushers could only muster 3.3 yards per game through 10 outings (just over 121 as an entire team per game)...
...Other than LSU's nearly 300 yard frenzy vs South Carolina, our solid outing vs Vandy (led by Emery) or Ty Davis-Price's manhandling of Arkansas & Florida, the running game was never a source of reprieve.
And as I listed above, I don't feel the running backs themselves were the main reason for last year's failures on the ground:
When our 2019 freshmen duo lost mentor RBs Coach Tommie Robinson, few seemed to realize how big of an effect his absence would have.
Leaving for Texas A&M shortly following LSU's National Championship win, Robinson remains one of the most charismatic recruiters in the sport, helping pull in big time players regardless of position: Derek Stingley Jr, Stephen Carr, LB Damone Clark, DT Jaquelin Roy, OL Kardell Thomas & Cam Wire, while developing some of our best backs in recent memory Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Derrius Guice & Nick Brosette (among others).
Outside of Corey Kiner & Armoni Goodwin from the 2021 class, Tommie is also the man to bring in our entire current running back room.
Before his departure, T-Rob was well on his way to pushing Ty and John over the hill heading into 2020...although more than on-field guidance, his emotional support off the field anchored our young RBs.
No matter how you slice it, losing T-Rob's personal touch became a big blow for the Tigers' running back room...I've heard the family of a current LSU running back tell me so.
While Kevin Faulk is a Tigers Legend, a 3x Super Bowl Champion and will be a great coach soon enough, losing an established force such as T-Rob during a pandemic year was a perfect case of horrific timing...albeit with some silver linings:
Throughout 2019's 60 passing touchdown escapades, Clyde Edwards-Helaire led the SEC with 17 rushing touchdowns and Emery / TDP still recorded 10 combined scores as freshmen. Overall, 2019 LSU rushed for 32 touchdowns as a team....
In a wild case of extremity, 2020 LSU rushed for just 9 overall TDs, a mere 6 from our running backs (3 each for TDP & Emery).
Based on that evidence alone, you can't tell me Tommie Robinson's absence didn't affect the running game....
You can't tell me our lackadaisical offensive line didn't play a major factor of creeping negativity....
And of course, I believe LSU failed at the rotation last season....
So...how can LSU get back to 2019's elite level of rushing offense?
Throughout 2020, both Emery & TDP posted high octane per game averages, Ty coming in at 4.3 yards per carry and John at an even 5 yards (Emery with 29 fewer carries).
Those appear to be fantastic numbers on the surface, but when you look closer at the game by game performances, next to our lack of coordination between O-Line and running game, a more clearer picture is revealed:
LSU rushed for 3 yards or less in 5 contests last year, losing 4 of those games; but the reading grows worse by the digit...against 3 of those 5 opponents, our running backs collectively rushed for 2.1 yards or less...twice hitting the calamitous mark of 1.2 against Auburn and 1.4 against A&M.
Against Auburn, our entire team hit its lowest point, yet our running game went down further depths....32 total yards from 27 carries...an abomination.
While Emery had his worst outing as a Tiger, Ty Davis-Price was handed the ball just 3 times for 0 yards....it was madness out there.
Heading into 2021, I see exactly where this unit can improve and hopefully explode:
Last year, our backs were far too afraid to hit any opening in front of them. Too often they hesitated, our O-Line couldn't hold and then they were often buried in the backfield before anyone could blink.
There were drives during 2020 where Ty Davis-Price or John Emery were in a rhythm, absolutely bending the defense to their will, finally putting the front seven on their heels....only to be taken out for the other. Coming in cold from the bench at the worst moment, the next play would inevitably be a telegraphed bread and butter call, and our backs would get pummeled, our offense completely losing momentum as a result.
This is the season where we must see our running backs finally given momentum in play design, based around anchoring / versatile offensive line protection, backed by an unpredictable variety of pre-snap movements.....all created to give our running backs time & thrust.
Offensive Coordinator Jake Peetz & RBs Coach Kevin Faulk continue to study LSU's new unit as much as possible, wondering how best to utilize and maximize their third year backs.
Speaking of their eligibility, remember either TDP, Emery or both could gain an extra year of eligibility, too. Because of that fact, I fully believe the running back who wins the job will go to the NFL after 2021 and whoever ranks second will opt in for that extra year.
Just like QB, it's as high stakes as it can get:
2020 was a weird season for John Emery...at one point he averaged 11.3 yards per rush against Alabama, taking a blistering run 54 yards to the house, cutting, shifting and following his blockers beautifully; he scored with a walk-in touchdown from 12 yards out vs Vanderbilt, before capping his 3 overall TDs with a stunning dive up and over Will Muschamp's South Carolina.
During the 3 outings where he scored, Emery enjoyed his best days of the season; Those performances are highlighted by topsy turvy runs where John burned or busted defenders with his outrageous agility & split second change of direction.
He's The Bayou Blur.
When Emery came up against opponents he couldn't beat on the edge (Auburn, A&M, Miss State, Florida, A&M or Missouri) he became a one-trick pony, sadly....completely defying the 5 star recruit's multi-dimensional powers.
Keep one thing in mind, though: this was John's first season post-eye surgery...reality tells us it was going to take him a season to get used to the visual changes. Many forget he played most of his footballing career using only a single eye.
While I couldn't stand his sideline laughing at Auburn or his liability as a pass-protector (also seen in the same game), Emery could end up being an intriguing receiving piece too, catching a slim 14 passes for 72 yards last year, resulting in some big gains.
This is an area LSU are seeking to improve: passing to our backs.
Recently, I enjoyed watching a 10 minute practice tape focused on Emery's receiving drills from a few weeks ago: Even while banged up, John has elevated his pass catching for 2021.
Emery is a truly stellar talent: the Destrehan product possesses an ability to score from anywhere on the field at any time...a power which may be singular among our Running Backs room.
Regardless of his talents, he is yet to fully take the reins.
After 2 seasons, 19 appearances, 7 TDs from 134 touches equaling 566 rushing yards and 133 extra through the air, Emery is still yet to fulfill the forecasted potential his pedigree affords him every off-season:
Emery is always the first running back to be mentioned by coaches, to the point most fans believe he's already the starter due to these continued high expectations; Because of Clyde's 2019 rise, last year's inconsistent backfield play & this Spring's banged up shoulder, John has been relegated to the role of supporting player throughout his LSU tenure.
He will be itching to return and make a statement....
On the other side of the coin, Ty Davis-Price's 2020 season turned out to be more consistent, posting two 100 yard outings in which TDP not only influenced LSU victories, the local Baton Rouge-native dominated & drained the opposition.
Sure, every rushing attack would love to have a home run hitter, a guy who can take it to the house at any time, but what this Tigers' spread offense need most is a controlling, evolving, unpredictable, multi-faceted rotisserie of rushing profiles able to gash and blast defenses into the atmosphere of their own fiction....and Ty Davis-Price fits the bill.
Down to 210 pounds coming out of Spring ball, Ty holds the #1 running back spot after he pulled off a fine performance throughout the Spring game, posting 76 yards from 15 carries.
Ty displayed his underrated pace in the second level, making safety Jordan Toles miss at a high speed, cruising and bruising through LSU's aggressive defenders. He broke through tackles, grabbed key first downs and showed something John Emery hasn't thus far:
Beyond mere reliability, TDP is equipped with special moves in the backfield, able to get himself out of trouble thanks to one slight turn of his hips. His legs become a turbine, eatlng up every blade of grass in his path...
Ty's 28 yard run, as well as his near 20 yard burst later on, both highlight a subtle combination of high octane finesse and stolen skull brutality that only Ty Davis-Price can provide.
We also witnessed Ty, only just back from injury, tirelessly motioning out wide fron the backfield or vice versa for 3 1/2 quarters; we watched him involved in play action before slipping off for a route...finally, after a year in the abyss, Davis-Price will be used as he should've been all along.
Though he only received 3 targets (including 1 on the first play of the game), Ty is intriguing as a receiving running back....just look at his diving touchdown catch vs Arkansas (which was wrongly disallowed)..no matter what orthodox thinking tells you, Ty isn't just a power guy....
Concerning both local National Champions, this last Sunday our Offensive Coordinator, RBs Coach and analyst Collin D'Angelo hosted the Davis-Price & Emery families for a nice dinner at Jake Peetz's home. Kevin Faulk, clad in a diamond #3 necklace, posed in a photo for Instagram next to Ty Davis-Price, taking a turn wearing Faulk's #3 chain.
Later, photos emerged of Peetz and Ty standing off to the side amid deep discussion, with a very close source to the team telling me: "Jake has big plans for Ty..."
As much as I feel Ty and John could more than do the job, our two incoming freshmen backs could also be sure-fire contenders...
One thing I know for sure???
Their presence will greatly improve the running back spot markedly thanks to their dual competitive fire jettisoning the rest of the group.
Iron sharpens iron baby.
What can Corey Kiner and Armoni Goodwin supply this offense?
Kiner has it all, from workhorse moves, multi-faceted shiftiness, Zeus-like finishing ability (125 total high school TDs, 116 on the ground) and he has mystique:
Recently traveling from Ohio to Louisiana for the Spring game with his family, his mother Denean commented to us about how nice everyone was at Tigers Stadium. If you check out our interview with Denean, you'll see it's very easy to like the Kiners.
This ease extends to Corey's footballing obsession...
I believe Kiner's roots, his family's commitment to LSU and the young man's Burrow-esque character will force every offensive staffer to pay keen attention to the young Roger Bacon High prodigy....oh and let's casually mention how I believe he could end up becoming LSU's best 2021 running back as a freshman.
Snagging an all-world back like Kiner would've given the Tigers a solid overall running back class, however LSU were able to double up:
Thanks to Corey's own recruiting assistance, LSU were able to flip Kiner's buddy Armoni Goodwin from Auburn....and his presence will more than likely turn out to be a mighty significant steal.
Goodwin has otherworldly speed....the kind Olympic trainers are desperate to sculpt into multiple gold medals.
While the Hewitt-Trussville senior broke Alabama state records on the track team, he also wrecked defenders on the field, recording back to back campaigns with double digit touchdowns, no small feat considering an injury cut his 2019 junior year short.
Armoni beat the odds this past year, emerging triumphant amid a pandemic as he erased a myriad of defenders for 1,424 yards and 18 TDs, resulting in a filthy 9.36 yards per carry...
But we can't sleep on Tre Bradford.
Hauling in the lead-taking TD vs Florida @ The Swamp (on a nice 3rd and goal screen), Bradford possesses the athleticism, play-making nous and heightened versatility to be the guy at LSU before his time is up, but 2021 may come too quick for his trajectory. He's contributed meaningful reps in crunch time and he may be the fastest back on our roster....
Our coaching staff overlooks Bradford at their own peril.
2021 LSU need our running backs to assist the passing game, not only in setting up big plays downfield or opening the middle third, it's about being a part of the action, too.
As a rule, our offense should force all defenders to cover every single blade of grass on every down.
How do you make that possible, especially after last season proved how tenuous everything can be in today's college football landscape?
I'll tell you how: by out-thinking & out-working the rest....and don't be afraid to study 2019's example.
That means getting creative, using defensive aggression against your opponent... this new vibe implies a kind of intensive fearlessness....a readiness to stick your head in the fire, knowing the cool breeze of winning bliss will protect you.
Watching LSU's offensive formations during the Spring Game and from scrimmages / practices, I've recognized a lot of the same sets Jake Peetz ran for Christian McCaffrey at Carolina (much of the same philosophies also born out of Steve Ensminger / Joe Brady's time with Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Brady's time at Penn State coaching freshman Saaquan Barkley to 1,000 yards, among other influences).
During Peetz's two seasons with the Pro Bowl running back, the son of Hall of Fame-level WR Ed McCaffrey followed in his father's footsteps as another family receiving threat. In Peetz's first year as running backs coach, Christian's stats exploded:
McCaffrey caught nearly 400 more yards through the air than he had in 2017, cruised & bruised for almost 400 more rushing yards & crazily became only the third player in NFL history to top 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving categories over a single season.
Can Peetz's backfield fury at Carolina be replicated through LSU's current crop of backs?
Due to our earlier injuries to TDP (suffering an ankle problem against Florida, a game he was owning at that point) and John Emery (still recovering from shoulder surgery), LSU's running backs are starting off-season preparations later than any other unit on our roster. Then, right before (or as) TDP & Emery returned, second year stunner "Texas Twister" Tre Bradford and solid walk-on Josh Williams both left a single scrimmage after sustaining injuries.
It's been stop, start, stop again & start over for this unit as Kevin Faulk, Jake Peetz and D.J Mangas figure out the right way to utilize everyone....let alone be able to field enough guys.
Through this adversity, the LSU staff have learned more about their overall running back depth, being forced to experiment with guys like LB Nick Demas or WRs Koy Moore, Trey Palmer or Jontre Kirklin at the position.
While it's never a blessing to have injured National Champions on your roster, at LSU the next man up has at times historically been the best man up. Everyone watching the Spring Game saw Koy Moore rattle off a long, zooming run between the tackles.....he has that holistic separation speed:
Now, if Peetz is able to deploy Boutte & Moore's unforgiving speed within different backfield wrinkles, the running backs will find far more avenues for second level destruction.
Regardless, the starting running back job won't be decided during the Spring game or its preceding practices...much like quarterback, this job will geaux down to the wire and maybe into the first chunk of fall...that's how many options are on the table.
For this writer, I give Ty Davis-Price the #1 spot while John Emery remains in a close second place, with Faulk and Peetz leaning on Tre Bradford's blinding speed as well....but there's still much to be decided before September 4th at the Rose Bowl vs UCLA:
Ty Davis-Price could have that special "Clyde-esque" season...I have strong positive vibes...
Before you scoff, remember: no one saw Clyde coming...except Clyde.
RBs Coach Kevin Faulk and OC Jake Peetz started working together since the former Carolina man joined the staff, but they will have their endless grind cut out for them when it comes to selecting LSU's starting running back.
A gladiator to lean on????
Double Trouble Attack through TDP & John?
Follow the hot hand?
A freshman starter????
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc LLC